What's the best hand luggage bag?
With more and more airlines charging for checked bags, it's worth travelling light to save money. We've got tips from all the frequent flyers at Skyscanner, as well as globe-trotting travel bloggers, so escape baggage fees and go hand luggage only with these top cabin bags.
But first, a few things to consider before choosing the right carry-on luggage for you...
Should I buy a one or two wheeled carry-on bag?
This is a contentious point amongst Skyscanner staff, and indeed travellers everywhere. Wheels and a pull-handle take the weight off your shoulders, but they reduce your internal luggage space and add weight to the bag itself.
Do I choose a hard or soft sided case?
Hard cases provide better protection for your belongings, but they are heavier, thicker (so less internal space) and won’t squeeze into spaces, making them harder (or unable) to fit into cramped overhead lockers or under the seat. On the other hand, soft-sided bags offer less protection from the rough and tumble of travel, but are lighter, offer more space, and can be squeezed into small spaces and compressed so they're not unnecessarily bulky when only partially full.
What's the maximum cabin luggage size?
This depends on the airline you're flying with; check out our guide to the weight and size restrictions of major European airlines here.
Here are 5 carry-on bags that Skyscanner staff use personally:
Lowe Alpine AT Lightflite Carry-On 45 from £57.94*
Cat McGloin, Travel Editor for Skyscanner, says: “I prefer backpack to wheels, but for a weekend away I don't need a full on hiking pack. Lowe Alpine's 45L bag is the perfect option, roomy enough for a few luxuries (spare heels, wardrobe changes for the evening) but isn't so big that it cripples me! Plus I get to save the money I'd spend on hold luggage on another round at the bar or a slap-up dinner.”
Capacity 5/5 With 45 litres of space and dimensions of 55 x 35 x 20-25 cm, the AT allows you to max out your carry-on luggage, but will still fit under the seat in front.
Functionality 5/5 The main compartment opens almost right up, like a suitcase, making packing and unpacking very easy. In the ‘lid’ there is a mesh zip pocket and it also has a second smaller compartment with various small zip pockets for small items, and then an outer, easy accessible pocket for your important documents. It has external compression straps, a carrying handle and an over-the-shoulder strap, and the rucksack straps can also be unclipped and zipped away.
Durability 5/5 Lowe Alpine are a trusted brand in the rucksack world, and the AT Carry-On 45 is a tough, well-made bag that’s built to last. We’ve used it regularly for two years, and there are no signs of damage or wear.
Style Factor 4/5 A nice looking ‘sporty’ bag, its rounded shape and two-tone colour scheme make it a stylish piece of kit.
Value for Money 5/5 It’s almost three times the price of a Cabin Max, but for your extra cash you do get a better made, more functional bag, that will last longer and look better.
Best For Weekend (or even week-long) warriors.
Cabin Max 44L from £27.99
Sam Baldwin, Skyscanner Traveller Communications Manager says: “I wanted a bag that would allow me to travel without checking in a hold bag. I love the way the Cabin Max completely opens up like a suitcase. It’s enabled me to avoid charges and save money on flights all over the world. It has been on many trips, from Beirut to Istanbul, and now has a few tears, but for the price, it has served me well.”
Capacity 5/5 True to its name, at 55 x 40 x 20 cm (weight 0.7 kg) the Cabin Max is designed to give you the maximum possible space while remaining within the luggage allowances of budget airlines like Ryanair and easyJet. Be careful as maximum dimensions vary depending on airline/aircraft but unless you have it absolutely packed to the max, you’ll be able to squeeze it in to the overhead locker, or under the seat in front.
Functionality 3/5 The Cabin Max has three outer compartments and two internal compartments; a large one for the main bulk of your clothes, and a smaller one with various zip and mesh pockets, which keep items like wallets and phone chargers nice and neat. On top is a handy carry handle; there are two adjustable shoulder straps, and the back has some light padding. There are also two quick release crush straps on the sides to help squeeze all your gear in.
Durability 2/5 This is a lightweight bag made of thin material. After several journeys, we found that some seams on the outer pocket had split. Tougher stitching is needed.
Style Factor 3/5 When full, the bag has a bulky, cuboid shape; it’s not going to win the ‘sexiest bag on the plane’ award. It’s not offensive, however, and apparently, black never goes out of fashion anyway.
Value for Money 5/5 For under £30, the Cabin Max is a steal and you only need to save the cost of checking in one bag to make your money back. This bag won’t last forever, but it’s so cheap it’s worth buying even if you have to replace it every couple of years.
Best For Budget-conscious travellers who want a functional bag; the Cabin Max is a popular choice for many Skyscanner staff.
Update as of 2017: The Antler Size Zero is not currently available, but the Antler Cyberlite II Suitcase (pictured, from £109) has cabin luggage-friendly dimensions of 55 x 40 x 20cm and is the closest product on the market to the one originally reviewed.
Andrew Philips, Skyscanner Technical Manager, says: “I love my Antler! It’s a decent size, has a bit for your shirts inside, and a pocket for your documents on the outside. It’s also got a built-in locking mechanism.”
Capacity 4/5 As a wheelie bag, the internal space is slightly reduced, but this 56 x 40 x 20 cm bag, weighing 2.4 kg, comes pretty close to the maximum permitted carry-on dimensions.
Functionality 5/5 A sleek roller case, it’s soft-sided enough to be squeezed into a tight space, but rigid enough to provide more protection than a bag. There’s a handy front pocket, a large main compartment, and two inner mesh pockets, as well as elasticated webbing, and a concealed pull handle. It also has a built in zip lock, with the TSA-accepted lock (so they can open your bag without damaging it).
Durability 5/5 Made from 300 x 600 polyester and coming with a 10 year Antler warranty, this is a quality piece of kit and is built to last.
Style Factor 5/5 In keeping with most Antler products, the Size Zero Cabin Trolley Case looks smart, slim and stylish.
Value for Money 4/5 Priced at over £100, you’re probably paying a premium for the name but you are getting a quality product with a decade-long guarantee.
Best For Style-conscious flyers. See how the larger Antler hard suitcase fared in our Suitcase Must Die: Tough Test reviews.
Trunki from £26.24 (depending on design)
Mary Porter, Skyscanner PR Manager and mother of two, swears by the Trunki: “Flying with children can be stressful, so anything that keeps the kids happy will make your journey easier. Trunkis are a lifesaver for entertaining little ones when you’re in long queues as well as saving tired little legs if your walk to the departure gate is a long one. I’m just dreaming of a remote control version now!”
Capacity 3/5 At 46 x 21-22 x 31-35 cm (18 litres), the Trunki is smaller than other bags in this test, but of course, it’s designed for small people.
Functionality 5/5 The Trunki is not only a mini-suitcase for the kiddies, but also a ride-on toy which keeps them entertained in the often stressful airport environment.
Durability 5/5 Trunkis are made of the same material as adult suitcases – tough stuff that will take a tantrum or ten, and will still keep rolling when the tears dry up.
Style Factor 5/5 From Bernard the Bee to Harley the Ladybird to the Gruffalo, there are 11 different Trunkis to choose from and the kids love ‘em!
Value for Money 4/5 With an RRP of £39.99, there are cheaper kids’ cases out there, but you can’t put a price on a happy child. (Well, actually you can: £39.99…)
Best For Keeping the kids quiet and making your holiday happier. For more on this, read Mary’s 10 Tips for Flying with Kids.
Tom Bihn Empire Builder from £164 ($200)
Bon Grimes, Skyscanner Co-founder, says: “I’m very fussy about the bag I travel with. It has to be a shoulder bag and has to fit under the seat in front of me. My last bag only lasted six months before it fell apart, but my Empire Builder is an excellent and well-made bag; I have used this bag weekly to fly up and down to our Edinburgh office, and four years on, it’s still serving me well.”
Capacity 4/5 The Empire Builder is deceptively small, almost brief-case like, but it actually has a good capacity with 46.5 x 32.5 x 18 cm of space and weighs 1.8 kg.
Functionality 5/5 There is a large central compartment, which has some light padding. The front flap has zip pockets and it has a comfortable over-the-shoulder strap.
Durability 5/5 Made of 1050 denier ballistic nylon, Tom Bihn’s website claims that the Empire Builder is ‘built to endure years of abuse’. After four years of weekly travel (flying four times per week), we can indeed confirm that this bag is as tough as a Glaswegian SAS Commando. It even comes with a lifetime guarantee to be free from defects in materials and workmanship for the life of the original owner.
Style Factor 5/5 A good looking bag, well designed to provide maximum capacity without looking bulky. Serious enough to suit the business class set, but with an air of cool casualness.
Value for Money 4/5 It’s the most expensive soft-sided bag in our test, but for the extra cash you do get a fantastically functional bag for the frequent flyer, and with the lifetime guarantee this may well be the only carry-on bag you ever need buy.
Best For Business travellers who want to get through that red eye flight without a fight over the dimensions of the hand luggage.
Now, check out the the carry-on bags used by our fans and travel bloggers from around the world:
Harvey's Seatbelt Bag from £150
Alyssa Ramos, of MyLifesAMovie.com gives this review:
Capacity 5/5 I call this my "life bag" because it fits everything I need in my life! It is the perfect size to fit my wallet/passport holder, notepad, MacBook Air, phone charger, GoPro, makeup, TSA approved plastic bag of liquids, about twenty lip glosses, some granola bars, a scarf, and a ton of other random items I probably will never need. Another plus is that it only weighs 0.71 kg - that's before you put all of your gadgets and holiday gear in of course!
Functionality 4/5 This is probably one of the most comfortable and easy to wear bags I've ever had! It fits snugly under my arm, or I can carry it in my hand, and if I really wanted to, it comes with a strap I can attach to wear it across my body. The only downside is I can't wear it on my back and it doesn't have wheels, and since my life is in it, it tends to get a bit heavy.
Durability 5/5 Did I mention that it's made out of up-cycled seatbelts? Since the purpose of a car seatbelt is to be durable, you can imagine how hard-wearing they are when used for traveling. My bag has been to about ten countries, countless planes, it even saved me in a motorcycle accident, and it doesn't have one scratch or tear on it!
Style Factor 4/5 This is the only bag I use usually, which means it doubles as a travel bag and a daily wear purse. I realise that a black tote bag made out of seatbelts isn't exactly the most stylish thing to wear to dinner or a bar, but it works because you really can't go wrong with a standard black bag.
Value for Money 5/5 Since I've been wearing this bag every day and across multiple countries for the past year and a half, I'd definitely say it's given me a long run for my money!
Best For The frequent traveller and worker on the go.
The Kathmandu Parker Pack v3, currently on sale for NZ$79.99 (£46)
Dan Flying Solo gives this review:
Capacity 5/5 At 28L (weighing 0.9 kg) it's not too far behind my round the world pack at 40L. With 50 x 29 x 24cm dimensions it can easily house my computers, clothes, tripods and books for a two week trip leaving me with just my camera to carry. Being durable enough to squeeze into any luggage bin is a big bonus as well.
Functionality 4/5 With a padded laptop back pocket, multiple meshed pockets for bottles and other bits and a built in phone holder there's more than enough storage compartments to keep everything neat and organised on any trip. It also includes a padded harness for additional comfort. The only thing that would improve it would be a fully forward opening, though it is far more convenient than a top opening only backpack.
Durability 5/5 Having padded internal laptop pockets and being made from 210 x 600 Polyester, it’s a bag I can trust to keep my gear safe and last long-term.
Style Factor 3/5 My pack is certainly not the sexiest of bags, but the newer black version is a lot more sleek. For adventure travel, however, I would always place comfort and functionality above style when making a bag choice - those are the things that are going to count when you are on the road.
Value for Money 5/5 You are getting a bag built to last for a fair price, which is the deal clincher for me. You don’t want to be worried about damage or having to replace it during a trip and it's adaptable enough to use as your day bag as well.
Best For Light packing adventurers - it's by far the best hand luggage I have travelled with. It replaces checked bags for at least a week and as a photographer that means no heavy or bulky luggage to cart around.
Phoenix Extreme 45L Rucksack from £44.99
Emily Luxton gives this review:
Capacity 3/5 At 45L, this was the largest hand luggage backpack I could find. It's still fairly snug, but I pack light, so I'm able to get everything I need for a warm weather trip in – I'm planning on using it for my upcoming two month trip to Thailand.
Functionality 5/5 The strap system works really well with adjustable hip, sternum and shoulder straps meaning the backpack is really comfy. Other great features are the open mesh back for ventilation (meaning no sweaty backs), breathable shoulder straps, drinks bottle pockets, water bladder pocket, and the zipped security pocket.
Durability 4/5 The weather resistant fabric and fold-out rain cover are great for keeping the backpack protected from the elements. The fabric is also pretty tough, and I've not managed to rip it yet on my travels!
Style Factor 3/5 Backpacks never really look stylish in my opinion, but this one is better than most. I like that it's small and neat, and I love the bright pink colour – although the black is probably the more stylish option. (Note: Currently only available in Charcoal)
Value for Money 5/5 In the Mountain Warehouse sale it was less than £50 and it's lasted me a while, so I think this backpack is amazing value for money!
Best For Long weekends in the great outdoors, hiking trips, and backpacking trips for minimalist packers.
Alex M1 Cabin Suitcase from £31.20
Ed Rex, of Rexy Edventures says: "As I went kicking and screaming into my thirties last year, I realised that I was no longer a backpacker. In fact, I’ve become a luxury flashpacker. With that in mind, I needed new hand luggage to take on exclusive and swanky city breaks, beach holidays or even a glamorous festival or two. Enter the funky, modern and professional looking Alex M1 Cabin Suitcase from Revelation London. It has already served me in good stead on my journeys across the UK and I anticipate it to be well used on my trips to the continent this year."
Capacity 5/5 The bag is definitely hand luggage sized (50 x 40 x 20cm, weight 2.8kg). I don’t think even Ryanair would stop this coming on board! It’s small, compact and yet, like a Tardis, it feels like it’s bigger on the inside! I’ve had absolutely no problems placing it into luggage holds and quite often, just sliding it under the seat in front of you.
Functionality 4/5 This bag has two outer pockets - perfect for whipping out a book, passport and travel information without having to open your entire suitcase. There's a mesh pocket in the inside of the suitcase lid. I usually store my valuables in there so they don’t get crushed. The handle is strong, sturdy and offers complete control so that the suitcase doesn’t topple every now and again. The reason I’ve given it 4/5 is that there are no crush releases, so you have to be careful in how you pack.
Durability 5/5 This suitcase has gone through thunderstorms, a horrible crash from a train suitcase hold and having to keep up with my fast walking speed. So far, it’s been very good and no damage can be seen.
Style Factor 5/5 This is the Channing Tatum of the hand luggage world. Its red colour puts to shame all the black and soft felt suitcases that are carted around on long journeys. (Note: The 50cm size is currently only available in red from the Revelation London website.)
Value for Money 5/5 It’s totally good value for money: it’s long-lasting, stylish and very functional.
Best For Luxury flashpackers who want to showcase their personality and have a good, sturdy and fashionable bag.
*Published January 2017. Prices correct at the time of publication but may be subject to change and/or availability.
All about getting the best deal and saving money when you travel? Let us show you how:
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Check out our handy infographic to compare different airlines' cabin baggage restrictions on short-haul flights.